New Delhi: It’s not often that the passing of a 97-year-old proprietor of a small standalone restaurant in a city’s old business district, a restaurant with no branches anywhere, evokes such a sense of loss even among people who didn’t live in the city. But Britannia is unlike other restaurants and Boman Rashid Kohinoor was unlike other restaurateurs.
Because how many would shuffle up to each and every table to check if you’re enjoying your food, inspect what you’ve ordered, and if it’s the berry pulao (his wife’s recipe, he’d make sure to remind you), pronounce you a “good girl” or “good boy”, even if you’re old enough to be a parent yourself? How many would do a little jig and recite “Fresh lime soda sweet, to beat the Bombay heat” to ensure you ordered a beverage?
These are just some of the memories that came rushing back last evening, when the news broke that Kohinoor had passed away at Mumbai’s Parsee General Hospital earlier in the day.
Social media has since been flooded with people — Mumbaikars as well as those who’d just been once — reminiscing about their visits to Britannia, the iconic Irani and Parsi café nestled in Mumbai’s heritage business district of Ballard Estate.
Surrounded by stately Edwardian neoclassical buildings, the tiny spot is almost hidden by trees and cars, and appears nondescript. But once you’re inside, it’s anything but.
I remember the first time I went to Britannia, in 2013. I was sitting by myself at one of the small tables covered in a red-and-white checkered cloth, quietly eating my mutton berry pulao and reading the new Bridget Jones book, when a wizened old man came up and enthusiastically told me he loved Bridget Jones because “she is unlimited majjaa”. I was instantly in love.
Months later, with a new job in Ballard Estate, Britannia became my neighbourhood restaurant, my go-to when friends were visiting the city or had a meeting nearby, or when I craved something sweet. But truth be told, the reason was never the food, although I enjoyed the berry pulaos and caramel custard immensely. The reason was Boman Kohinoor.
Most people who frequent Britannia today would concur that there is better salli boti elsewhere, that charging upwards of Rs 400 for a berry pulao at Britannia seems criminal, that the lack of air-conditioning makes it difficult to enjoy lunch there in the soul-sapping Mumbai humidity.
But they would also concur that the Britannia experience went beyond all of those things, and the reason was its senior partner.
Kohinoor would sit quietly at the back and watch people stream into his beloved restaurant, then slowly make his way to every table and have the same conversation with each person. He’d ask them what they do, tell them they need to eat more, recount how his father, Rashid Kohinoor, an immigrant from Iran, set up the restaurant in 1923 and how he took over at the age of 20. He would tell you how, during World War II, he and his father, worried that the restaurant was under threat owing to its closeness to the port, would spend nights there to protect it. And he’d show off his letters from the Queen of England.
He’d point out the walls covered with framed pictures and cutouts of various members of the British royal family, whom he was obsessed with. I didn’t understand why he was obsessed with them or why it was his life’s dream to meet them, but I will always be grateful for the fact that I had a role in making that dream come true.
Many will remember the viral video campaign by Condé Nast Traveller, thanks to which Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, actually invited Kohinoor to their hotel for a meeting, during their visit in 2016. The next day, he sent a ton of free berry pulao and caramel custard up to the office as a thank-you, and told me and a colleague that we were as pretty as Kate. We knew he said that to every girl (the player), but it still made us smile.
Kohinoor always said he hoped to live to 150, to break the record of the world’s longest-living person. It wasn’t to be. His passing at 97 has left the city of Mumbai and everyone who has ever been to Britannia heartbroken. Mumbai is so much poorer today.